A number of unhappy caravan owners have contacted CHOICE in recent years with reports of major faults that make the vehicles unsafe to use, and many have struggled to exercise their right to a resolution under Australian Consumer Law.
Instead of refunds or replacements, they've been given the runaround by an industry that appears to bypass the law with impunity, leaving many caravan owners out of pocket and out of options.
- Don't buy at the caravan shows – despite how tempting it can be. The salespeople can work on commission and often use high-pressure sales tactics.
- Be wary of putting down large deposits. Many companies go broke or 'phoenix' into another business and you could end up out of pocket.
- Beware of claims that a manufacturer is accredited. The industry accredits itself so there's no assurance the quality is any better.
- Know the difference between a full off-road and a semi off-road van. Many claim to be full off-road but are not and there's no industry standard, so this can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
- Check the sales contract thoroughly – ask to take it away so you can do so. Be prepared to negotiate and ask for things to be deleted if you don't think they're fair. Things to look out for are essential clauses such as the maximum permissible ATM (aggregate trailer mass), payload and ball weights.
- Take an independent expert with you to assess the van – a builder, engineer, plumber or even a welder should be able to spot any obvious problems.
- Request a cooling-off period as many vans don't experience problems straight away.
- Do a towing course if you've never owned an RV before. Learning how to tow and load your RV properly is as important as getting the right RV and could save your life.
Colin O'Neill bought a $70k van in 2014 after seeing the model at a caravan and RV show. He'd recently retired and he and his wife wanted a new van for their holiday to WA. They were keen on a model they saw with an ensuite and washing machine, and were promised it could be manufactured and delivered in time.
A caravan being towed after a gas explosion
Colin says the first red flag appeared when they went to pick up the van and were told the washing machine would be fitted at a later date. The couple took the van anyway and headed off on their first journey.
Within days they noticed that the floor was wet and quickly discovered the van was letting in water as it was poorly sealed.
Before they could think about the leaks, Colin says the electrics "packed it in" while they were travelling in South Australia. He phoned what he had been told was a 24/7 support line for roadside assistance but the number was inactive.
Manufacturer gives van owner the runaround
After calling the manufacturer directly, Colin was told he'd have to take the van to Alice Springs for repairs. When neither repairer there was suited to caravan repairs he was told to take the van to Geraldton in WA.
It was there Colin says the repairer told him that his "new" van was more likely to be over a year old with fittings inside that were older still.
His "new" van was more likely to be over a year old with fittings that were older still
Back in Sydney, Colin contacted NSW Fair Trading for advice after unsuccessfully trying to speak with the manufacturer.
His case eventually ended up in a NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) hearing, where the manufacturer agreed to repair the van in a few weeks and provide Colin with a loan van.
Colin says the repairs took months not weeks and the loan van never materialised.
When he finally got his van back he says the electrics and the brakes started to play up again and leaking continued to plague the van. The door to the van was also faulty and Colin says he had to avoid turning left too hard when driving as the brakes would lock up.
The caravan sat in his front garden for years, completely unusable.
The long and stressful road
Colin went to NCAT a second time in April 2017 in a case against the supplier, Country Motor Company (CMC). At the final hearing of the case in September 2018, he won a full refund, but CMC is currently appealing the decision.
If he ever gets his money back, it will be after a long and drawn-out battle that has taken a psychological toll.
"All we wanted was a holiday," says Colin. "I wanted to retire and enjoy my time – instead I'm left in debt and stressed and with three years of wasted time fighting for my rights, yet the company that did this to me is still trading."
I'm left in debt and stressed and with three years of wasted time fighting for my rights
"This is why so many people like me with dodgy vans just give up – it takes so much time, they get the runaround and they end up selling the van and trying to get back some of their money and then that problem van ends up getting sold to someone else.
"The fact is my van never worked properly from the beginning – it still looks good on the exterior but the reality is that it's a deathtrap."
Tracy Leigh set up her Facebook group Lemon Caravans & RVs in Aus after she experienced serious problems within hours of buying a brand new $72k van in 2015. She is still chasing a resolution. Her page now has more than 45,000 members and continues to grow as more unhappy owners seek advice on what to do with their lemon vans (though not all members have had issues with their caravans).
Tracy Leigh set up a Facebook group for owners of dodgy caravans and RVs
Tracy told us in early 2017 when CHOICE began looking into the issue that she'd been overwhelmed by the stories she'd heard about severely defective camper trailers, caravans and RVs.
And price makes no difference when it comes to quality. "You can pay over $100k and still get a lemon," she says.
She says the industry is in a shambles.
"It is not regulated, it's self-certifying and self-accredited. There have also been allegations of organised crime involvement, standover tactics and death threats. The industry acts as if they are a law unto themselves, which they are because no government agencies are taking much notice and those that do, take months and sometimes years to investigate."
And despite the best efforts of many aggrieved owners looking for remedies by way of the Australian Consumer Law, Tracy says she's seen little success.
When we spoke to Tracy again in late April 2019, aspiring caravan owners were as vulnerable as ever.
The manufacturers know no one will touch them. There's a failure at all levels of regulatory response
"It's just getting worse and worse for consumers," she tells us. "I'm getting lemon caravan stories twice a day. Manufacturers and suppliers are not complying with the Australian Consumer Law, and they really don't have to. All the regulators can do is conciliate. They can't force the traders to do anything. The manufacturers know no one will touch them. There's a failure at all levels of regulatory response."
Along with lack of regulation, the crux of the problem is quality control.
According to Tracy, who says she's been in regular touch with the ACCC on the issue for the past three years but failed to incite much action, many of the 120-plus caravan manufacturers in Australia are churning out faulty products.
"There's a wilful disregard for Australian design rules and Australian standards, and it's incredibly widespread and systemic," Tracy says.
Former caravan repairer Barry Davidson agrees with Tracy that the multibillion-dollar industry is due for an overhaul. Davidson, who describes himself as an industry veteran, has built and sold caravans and he also ran one of Australia's biggest repair companies in Queensland for over 20 years.
He says the industry has gone from a couple of well-established and well-regarded manufacturers 20 years ago to hundreds of small companies jumping on the caravan manufacturing bandwagon today.
Any idiot with a glue gun and screw gun can set up shop
He says as caravanning continues to grow in popularity, combined with a lack of regulation, "any idiot with a glue gun and a screw gun can set up shop and call themselves a caravan manufacturer".
And thanks to the deluge of new manufacturers entering the market, competition for sales is tough so there are plenty of corners cut in the manufacturing process in order to compete on price. Davidson was so alarmed by some of the dodgy work he saw at his repair business he created the 'Rogues Gallery' on a popular online caravan forum, a horror show of water damage, broken chassis, severely overweight vans, dangerous electrics and more, all on relatively new vans.
A two-year-old caravan being towed after suspension failure
Colin Young, a retired engineer and manager of the Caravan Council of Australia, told us he was haunted by the thought of how many unsafe vans are on the road when we interviewed him in 2017.
He said he was aware of a number of serious incidents, and that for every major accident involving a caravan there were probably another 100 more that involve jackknifing and near misses due to poorly constructed and overweight vans being driven by inexperienced drivers.
"So many of these vehicles are unsafe and are not fit to be on the roads ... If these were cars there would be uproar."
Sadly the situation has become even worse
Like Tracy, Young says the situation has only gotten worse since then.
"It would be nice to say that the serious problems in the caravan industry have all gone away, but sadly the situation has become even worse," Young says now.
"A lot of manufacturers have gone out of business over the past couple of years. This has caused major hassles for many aggrieved owners, along with a lot of costly litigation in an often futile effort to have defects rectified and costs recovered. There are far too many accidents and scary incidents involving caravans on our roads."
So just how is it that so many lemon caravans make it onto the road?
While most of us couldn't just set up shop making and selling cars, it is possible when it comes to caravans. Despite Australian design rules for caravans set by Vehicle Standards, there's a lack of independent oversight to ensure that manufacturers are complying.
Under the Motor Vehicle Standards Act 1989 (MVSA), light trailers (this generally includes caravans and RVs) under 4.5 tonnes are currently "self-certifying". When we contacted the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, which oversees vehicle standards, they expanded on this. A spokesperson says that road trailers (which includes caravans) that don't exceed 4.5 tonnes may be supplied via two different pathways:
- Trailers not exceeding 4.5 tonnes are supplied under the legislative arrangement called Vehicle Standards Bulletin No. 1 (VSB1). If a manufacturer complies with the prescribed requirements of VSB1, the manufacturer is permitted to fit a trailer plate under s.14A(1) of the Act and supply the trailer to the Australian market.
- Where a trailer's design is unable to meet the requirements of VSB1, the manufacturer must seek approval under the Act to supply to market. In general terms, this means the manufacturer will need to demonstrate full compliance (via an application through the Road Vehicle Certification System) with all applicable Australian Design Rules (ADRs) and if approved will receive written approval to supply that vehicle type to the market.
So why is the process so different to that of motor vehicles?
A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities says that the certification process for motor vehicles is well suited to mass-produced vehicles. However, light trailers (which includes vans) are generally custom-made so the approval process is not as suitable.
Wet rot in the body of the caravan due to poor sealing and joining – a common and expensive repair issue for owners
The owners and industry experts we spoke to say the current system just isn't enough.
"It's a case of 'tick a box'," says Tracy. "There are design rules but I doubt they are being followed, and there's no enforcement, no spot checks – currently these are not being enforced in any way, and at the same time there are too many small, inexperienced companies that don't have the knowledge to certify."
The Department is currently implementing the Road Vehicle Standards Act 2018 (RVSA) which will gradually replace the MVSA from 10 December 2019 and change the way small trailers are regulated.
But Tracy says any changes that would potentially favour consumers won't make a difference unless regulators are willing to investigate and prosecute violations of the RVSA.
Caravan repairer Barry Davidson says there are few caravan manufacturers he would trust these days when it comes to honouring repairs under warranty.
"They can say they provide a warranty but when it comes time to make a claim, it's a different game."
While Davidson's company does a large number of repairs technically under warranty, they bill the owner for the cost of the work and it's then up to the owner to try to recoup the money themselves, usually with little success.
Plumber reveals trade secrets
While we were researching this story we were contacted by Jason (not his real name), a plumber who has worked in the caravan industry for more than 10 years. He says while he was happy to speak about the issues in the industry he didn't feel safe enough to identify himself in this article.
Jason says poor manufacturing processes are rife. "While there are design rules and compliance regulation it's not enforced. Manufacturers know that so they will constantly push the boundaries. There are unlicensed people doing the work and it's signed off without being checked properly."
There are unlicensed people doing the work
Jason says the current auditing process is a joke. "You get prior warning before they visit and when I worked for certain manufacturers I'd be told to not show the auditors certain vans because it was clear that they would not pass the audit. It was completely deliberate."
While he says certain trade work is regulated more rigorously in some states (such as electrics or plumbing) it's not in others.
"With plumbing where there weren't any checks, I know of one van owner who had waste water from the toilet being pumped into the fresh water tank. It wasn't picked up as a fault and was only discovered when the guy and his family kept getting sick."
I'd be told to not show the auditors certain vans because it was clear they would not pass
Jason says the biggest issue with the current state of manufacture is that the regulation isn't done as a whole or by any independent body.
"Caravans are not regulated as caravans – they are classified with trailers via the vehicle safety standards which doesn't help as most of the design rules relate to the externals, brakes [and] lights. It doesn't cover what's inside including electrics, plumbing [and] cabinetry."
According to Tracy, the industry body representing caravan makers and suppliers, the Caravan Industry Association of Australia (CIAA), is failing to address the issue of dodgy caravan makers and sellers. The CIAA represents more than 3500 businesses across the supply chain.
"The CIAA doesn't enforce its RVMAP accreditation even though it can, but in doing so it would lose most of its revenue," Tracy says. "They can terminate contracts for breaches and refuse to do so. Their accredited members continue to advertise 100% compliance when they are nothing of the sort. CIAA claims that the RVMAP program is well regarded by consumers and a large factor in their purchase. They are being misled."
CIAA CEO Stuart Lamont says the organisation is committed to RVMAP compliance.
"The Caravan Industry Association of Australia takes its responsibility of educating industry of their compliance obligations seriously, and inspect over 1000 individual RV product annually against the manufacturers' commitments under RVMAP," Lamont says.
"These inspections are conducted at manufacturing premises, retail dealerships and caravan consumer shows. In addition we get the opportunity to inspect a small number of product from non-RVMAP manufacturers at various consumer shows where this product is displayed directly to consumers."
"We undertake these inspections without favour of individuals or companies and are offended at any accusation that we do so in return for revenue or with bias. Since the program became licensed nearly four years ago, 17 manufacturers have left RVMAP not able to adhere to the license conditions or unwilling to have their product inspected."
"It is disappointing that manufacturers and importers representing over 12,000 units annually can put product on the road and in the hands of consumers without any inspection," Lamont added. "We believe this should be something being criticised and examined, rather than attacking a program which is out there improving consumer safety, and manufacturers' understanding of their compliance obligations."
Queensland operators caught out
Two recent cases in Queensland suggest the law may be slowly starting to catch up with the caravan industry.
In 2018, Brisbane-based campervan manufacturer Gidget Retro Teardrop Camper Pty Ltd (Gidget) was ordered to pay more than $1 million in fines, compensation and costs following a Queensland Office of Fair Trading (OFT) investigation.
The court found Gidget and its director Glenn Stuart Wills had accepted payment from consumers for campervans but had failed to supply them within a reasonable time.
And in August 2017 the OFT warned consumers against dealing with caravan dealer Anthony Michael Gliddon after the Queensland Police Service charged him with 81 counts of fraud over the sale of written-off caravans.
Gliddon allegedly bought written-off caravans in NSW, transported them to Queensland, and sold them to consumers without disclosing their previous history.
(Vehicles and caravans that are declared statutory write-offs can't ever be legally re-registered for road use or insured in Australia.)
Between 1 July 2017 and 30 June 2018 the OFT received 229 complaints relating to caravans.
And between 1 July 2018 and 24 April 2019 the OFT has received 95 complaints.
(Of the total complaints, 75 were lodged against Gidget and 29 against Gliddon.)
Jayco under investigation
And the ACCC does have one caravan case on its books. In November 2017 it announced federal court proceedings against Australia's largest caravan maker, Jayco, for alleged breaches of the ACL on behalf of four customers whose caravans had numerous defects.
"The numerous defects in the Jayco caravans sold to these four consumers became apparent at the time of purchase, or very soon after and included issues such as misalignment in the roof, which did not close properly and leaked," ACCC chairman Rod Sims said at the time.
Jayco put customers through an endless round of unsuccessful repairs
Instead of offering a refund or replacement as the ACL stipulates, Jayco put the customers through an endless round of unsuccessful repairs.
The Jayco case illustrates an industry more than willing to play hard ball, Tracy says.
"They are fighting it all the way. They don't want to be the first RV manufacturer prosecuted."
Under the current consumer laws, the ACCC gives examples of what might be considered a major failure.
A major failure to comply with the consumer guarantees is when a reasonable consumer wouldn't have bought the item if they'd known about the full extent of the problem.
For example, no reasonable consumer would buy a new caravan with so many recurring faults that the caravan has spent more time off the road than on it because several repairers have been unable to solve the problem.
If your situation appears to suit the ACCC's definition of a major failure, then according to the Australian Consumer Law you should be entitled to a replacement or a refund.
We contacted the ACCC for comment on this issue. A spokesperson told CHOICE that they do not comment on complaints nor do they break complaints down by product.
Electrical wiring perforated by staples and screws during manufacture
NSW Fair Trading says that from 1 January 2018 to date, the agency has received 202 complaints and 635 enquiries about new and used caravans. The complaints mostly relate to defective or unsatisfactory goods, refunds, repairs and maintenance.
And in 2018 Victoria Consumer Affairs received 134 enquiries relating to campervans and 302 enquiries relating to trailers and unpowered caravans.
The spokesperson from NSW Fair Trading says, "Under the motor dealers and repairers legislation, a caravan has no dealer guarantee attached to it when purchased. This means the dealer is not required by this legislation to repair, or make good any defect which may exist or occur with the caravan. Consumers buying a caravan from a licensed dealer, however, are covered under the Australian law."
However, as lemon caravan owner Colin O'Neill says, "The consumer laws in this country are good, but are no good if they aren't enforced."
Colin engaged in protracted discussions with NSW Fair Trading, taking his matter to the NSW Civil and Administrative tribunal. Yet, he says, he still has an unroadworthy van and is out of pocket to the tune of $80,000.
When something goes wrong with a product, consumers should have confidence that they'll get a fair fix
Tracy Leigh says that despite the best efforts of many lemon caravan owners, few are satisfied with their experiences with the current consumer laws.
"Consumers are being ripped off on a daily basis and regulators such as the ACCC and consumer affairs will do nothing to enforce the Australian Consumer Law. This leaves consumers having to go to court, at a severe financial loss."
Erin Turner, CHOICE director of campaigns and communications, says there's plenty of work to be done when it comes to making our consumer laws work better for caravan owners with a problem. "When something goes wrong with a product, consumers should have confidence that they'll get a fair fix. This clearly isn't happening for people stuck with a lemon caravan. Governments across Australia need to work together to amend the consumer law so that it's clear that anyone who has to deal with multiple minor product failures has the option to get a refund or replacement."
While the various people we spoke to about this issue have different ideas about how the industry can be improved, all agree it is a serious issue.
Some have called for a royal commission into the industry, or a class action. Others such as Tracy Leigh believe there should be specific lemon laws to better facilitate the refund and repair process, while others say that having an independent body to certify and oversee the industry at the point of manufacture would nip many of the problems in the bud before the vans hit the sales floor or the road.
In February 2016, Vehicle Safety Standards published a discussion paper on reforming the certification process where manufacturers will have to provide a sample vehicle for approval before sale.
But all that is cold comfort for many unhappy owners who are still out of pocket and out of options. As Tracy says, "Having a lemon is an emotional, financial and physical burden that no consumer should go through if the laws worked properly."
February 2021: In early November 2019, caravan maker Bruder Expedition won a court case against Leigh on the grounds that a link on the Facebook page she administers (Lemon Caravans and RVs in Aus) that led viewers to a website with comments by a dissatisfied Bruder customer could harm the reputation of the company. Comments by Leigh that were critical of Bruder were included with the link. Leigh appealed the court decision and won the appeal in late 2020, when it was ruled that Bruder's claims of injurious falsehood did not stand up to scrutiny.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.